anton osten

only a little worse


"But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

"And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way."

They Thought They Were Free



fear


Above all, I fear for the planet. For the Arctic ice that will continue to melt, for the seas that will continue to rise, for the lives of people and animals that will be threatened by the poison that we will continue pumping into our air.

Almost any policy can be reversed and undone, and change for the worse can be replaced with change for the better, except for change on which our planet will not wait. Our planet is indifferent. It will not care about our politics and the reasons for which we choose those who lead us. It will react, every minute of every day, with scientific inevitability, to everything we do regardless of what we believe and who we elect.

Four years of no change for the better will squander what precious little time we have to stop our planet's indifferent reaction from destroying all that we need to live, to grow, to prosper and to be happy. Four years of change for the worse will speed up that destruction and may prevent us from bringing any change to stop it.

I fear that we will have no change for the better. I fear even more that we will have change for the worse.

But we must not let our fear turn into terror and paralyse us. We must let that fear drive us to fight, to stop change for the worse, and to bring change for the better. Our planet is indifferent. It does not care about our politics. It will not judge our decisions, and it will not care who leads us. As long as we bring change for the better, as long as we stop poisoning our air, our planet may stop changing for the worse, and the ice may not melt, the seas may not rise, and we may continue to grow and to prosper.

But for that, we must fight. We must fear what would happen if make no change for the better, and we must fight.



the man who did nothing


It was a funeral of a man who was not known for anything. As far as anyone could tell, the man had no relatives, and no friends, or even acquaintances. Certainly, none of them came to honour his memory.

That memory itself was vague. No one could recall much about his life. Igna, the owner of the bookshop on Linden, said that all that she could remember was how the man wandered the streets around her bookshop, and although sometimes he came in, he just as aimlessly wandered around the bookshop and always left without buying any books or even starting a conversation.

The man's scarcity of words was remembered also by Elsten, who worked at the bakery by the Central Square. Elsten would recall that the man sometimes dropped by the bakery, never at the same time of the day and often not appearing for days on end. He bought a different baked good every time, often ones that were a day old, and left without talking. Elsten admitted she had assumed the man could not speak, until one day he came to the bakery at three thirty-one, smiled, and said "Hello."

No one knew if the man had been employed, or how he occupied his time. Fredrik said that someone told him the man was an artist, but no art was found anywhere in his small flat overlooking the Tiller Bridge. There were, in fact, no books or any other objects of culture or entertainment at his residence, other than, someone said, a small volume of poetry by lesser known poets of the previous century. That much was true. When the Chief Investigator inspected the book for any notes, marks, or dents made by a fingernail, mostly out of his own curiosity, she found nothing. So, while it was certain that the book had been in the man's possession, no one could say for sure if the man had ever read it, let alone if any of the poems were favoured by him more than others.

In short, the man's life was a mystery, albeit, most agreed, a mystery that hid nothing behind it. Kredis, the newspaper reporter, spent the week between his dropping dead by the cinema on Ponwak street to his funeral trying to find out something about his life that would grip and intrigue her readers. Despite her efforts, she came up with nothing other than the aforementioned fact about his owning a book of lesser known poetry.

Therefore, on the basis of all this evidence, most residents of the town agreed that the man did nothing, achieved nothing, and would probably be remembered for nothing. Still, a number of them came to his funeral, if only because he had lived in the town, and they wanted him to be seen off by someone, even if none of them had known him or had any interest in his life before he died.

At the funeral, the civil officiant asked if anyone had anything to say in the man's memory. No one who came had been close to the man, and so the officiant did not expect anyone to speak up. She had a piece of paper with a speech prepared for occasions when the deceased person had no known family and no known friends. She had already taken it out of her jacket and was smoothening it out in front of her, when, to the surprise of her and everyone else, Vetton, a teacher at one of the town's schools, rose from his seat and announced that he wanted to speak. There was a murmur among the small crowd. Itta, a member of the town's council, asked Gritta, the headmaster of the school where Vetton taught mathematics, if he and the man had been in any way related. As far as Gritta knew, he was not.

"Are you a relative?" the officiant, too, asked incredulously. "Or, perhaps, a friend?"

"If I were not," replied Vetton, "would that preclude me from speaking?"

"No, of course not," said the officiant, and gestured for Vetton to come forward.

Vetton walked over to the platform and stood by the officiant, who had now moved aside.

"Indeed, as you might suspect, I was in no way related to the man we are putting into the ground today, nor was I his friend, nor did I know much about him at all."

Vetton spoke softly, but with a certain gravity that electrified the people in front of him. Even Jarko, an accountant and a part time photographer for the same newspaper which employed Kredis, who had been nodding off, immediately returned to alertness.

"I suspect none of us knew much about him. I know that no one from his family is here ― otherwise we would have already seen them ― and I fear the man did not have any family to speak of, just as, I believe, he did not have any friends. Yes, to be sure, we all knew him just a little, because we've seen him walk around the town or feed old bread to ducks out by the Ponds, but ― and please correct me if this is false ― I don't believe that any one of us have ever heard him talk at length."

Vetton stopped, waiting to see if anyone would correct him. No one did. A few people, one of them Elsten from the bakery, mumbled that they could barely get him to say hello.

"So," Vetton continued, "it seems true, then, that no one really knew this man. No one admired this man, but, also, no one hated him. And that, I say, is why we need to celebrate his life, as we might not celebrate the life of someone else. Why, may you ask?"

A few attendees did ask.

"We have to celebrate his life precisely since he spent it doing nothing that would inspire love, or hate, or admiration, or revulsion. How many men had earned devotion and respect at the expense of someone else's pain? I cannot count. This man led no one and inspired no one. How many men who led with inspiration morphed into dictators and tyrants? I cannot count. This man had neither family nor friends, and we know no one who could claim to love him. How many men, friends, husbands, fathers had been loved, and then hurt those who loved them? I cannot count. This man created nothing, he left nothing that would last, and offered nothing to the world. How many men's inventions and undying contributions to our planet have been used to kill, or torture, or instil emotional distress? I cannot count because there simply are too many. And yet whenever such men die, there's always someone who speaks up and glorifies their life, and others join in, and then these men, who – yes, perhaps unwillingly – have hurt, are celebrated. Well, I propose to you, my fellow people of this town, that if we celebrate the lives of men like that, we must then celebrate especially the life of this man here, the one we're burying today. For if those men we celebrate had brought us anything we might remember, they'd just as surely left things that some of us are trying to forget. And in this way, this man, who has done nothing, achieved more greatness than those other men ― and more than all of us combined ― because his life comprised one big, inarguable achievement, and that achievement is that by doing nothing all his life, this man," Vetton pointed to the man in the coffin, "hurt no one, murdered no one, disappointed and embarrassed no one, and isn't leaving anyone with memories of suffering or pain. And therefore his life, whose only daily occupation was to wander our streets and feed old bread to ducks, should be remembered most of all. He could've worked, he could've acted with ambition, he also could have loved, but he restrained his urge to do those things, and thus he leaves us leaving no regrets. That's why, I think, that all of us should tell him ― he, of course, is dead, but still ― 'Goodbye, o man whom no one cared about or knew and never talked to. You never did us any good, but neither did you do us any evil. For that, we honour you. For that, we will remember you. For that, we wish that some who did and built and battled and destroyed, had stopped, and thought, and followed your example of inaction. Because if we remember you for nothing, then we’ll remember you for nothing bad."

Having said all that without a single pause, Vetton finally stopped talking and started clapping. After some time, others joined him. Soon enough, Itta, Gritta, Kredis, Jarko, Igna, Elsten, Fredrik, the officiant, and then the rest of them stood up and clapped.



unnatural and offensive


Once, when some reason of government bureaucracy made me dig out my <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SNILS_(Russia)">SNILS</a>, Russia's equivalent of a Social Security card, I examined it in the same idle manner in which many of us examine government documents that we don't look at very often. On the card's back side, it gave a list of circumstances in which one would need to have it replaced. If you change your name, surname or patronymic. If you change your date or place of birth (although I wonder how one can retroactively change the temporal and geographical circumstances of their birth). If you find inaccuracies or errors in the card's data. If the card is damaged. If you change your sex.

<img src="https://ostensible.me/files/snils_gender.png" width="400px">

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that part. Go them, I thought, telling people who do not identify with a sex they were assigned at birth, that if they change it, they will still be a part of the system, just like everyone else. In a country where LGBT individuals are denied freedom of expression, suffer violent attacks in public, and are frequently ostracised and disowned by their own families, I found that having transgender identity so plainly acknowledged on a common government document was progressive. So progressive it was almost out of place.

Turns out I wasn't the only one who found that line about sex change out of place. In April of this year, Sultan Khamzayev, a member of Russia's Civic Chamber, an organisation Putin created supposedly so that members of the public could weigh in on legislative and executive activity, but which lately mostly expresses their moral outrage at stuff they find distasteful, expressed his moral outrage at the fact that the SNILS mentions sex change. He said that listing it there meant that a sex change "is supposedly natural and as widespread and common as a change of surname, name, or patronymic." This, according to him, "does not correspond to the principles of morality and offends the moral principles of the majority of [Russia's] citizens, especially parents, the religious community, and every representative of a traditional faith."

Russia's Pension Fund, which issues the cards, heard him loud and clear ― after all, he speaks for the majority of Russians and knows what every religious person finds offensive. Today, the Fund's head, Anton Drozdov, announced that the part about sex change will be removed. New cards, which will start to be issued in October, will not have it.

Millions of Russian citizens can thank Mr Khamzayev and sleep safe, knowing that in those infrequent times they will find themselves reading the back of their SNILS cards, they won't have to be reminded about the problems of transgender identity.



rehabilitation


Meduza, which I quote here frequently, has published a horrifying article about private drug rehabilitation centres across Russia. Relatives of people who struggle with substance abuse are frequently led to believe that the 'strict' conditions at such centres will help the victims overcome addiction. The patients (who are adults) are frequently taken to such centres without their consent and often can't leave. This is what those what actually goes on there, based on several interviews with former patients:

"The "psychologist" that Denis was taken to turned out to be the head of the motivational home. Denis told him that they had no right to kidnap him from his own apartment, and received a forceful punch in the chest. Then the newcomer was taken to the yard, where he was put in the same hole [where he earlier saw another resident] and was hosed with cold water. He tried to climb out, but the workers of the home wouldn't let him; when everything was over, Denis had to be carried out of the hole - he couldn't climb out himself due to spasms.

As Denis later found out, that was a standard procedure for newcomers at the motivational home (also called residents) who refuse to consent to forced treatment. "Most things go through the [holes in the] ground," he explains. "To bring you down, or return sense, as they say." Other than the hosings, motivational homes have other punishments, both group and individual. Those are "upgrades", "night writings", and "trainings." For instance, someone who complains about having a fever may be given a "thermometer" - they would put a large board around his neck, which would have marker-drawn temperature etchings and which would say 36.6 [normal body temperature in Celsius]. If someone requests a pill, they might have a car tyre put around their neck. If someone forgets to shut a door, they would have to carry that door on their back. Sometimes such "trainings" might last over a week. [...]

When some patients wanted to leave, the employees would agree to call them a taxi and offer to pack their bags. When that person would take their belongings and step outside of the building, they would be hosed with cold water right in their clothes. Others were forced to dig and cover a hole several times in a row. [...]

"I remember how at dinner someone gave himself a little more condensed milk than he was allowed. Then they put three loaves of bread, a bag of chicory, and three-four cans of condensed milk in front of him and made him eat it. He wanted to throw up, but he kept eating." Alexander says. "When I saw that, I realised I couldn't protest - I could've faced serious repercussions. Before my time, someone had their liver punctured, someone hanged himself, and someone else was beaten to death. I talked to the people around me - almost everyone had thought of killing himself." [...]

A few months later, Denis was transferred to another rehabilitation centre, with milder conditions - [called] "lite" or "a therapeutic society". They also had "night writings", but no "upgrades" or physical torture. A month later he broke the rules - he had what the employees called an ESR - an "emotionally significant relationship."

"I met a girl, we liked each other and started talking. Not directly, that was forbidden, we wrote notes," Denis tells us. "Then they discovered it and took us to different motivational homes. They put me in a bed without a mattress, gave me a log, put a picture of a woman's face on it, and gave it that girl's name. I had to sleep with the log for ten days. They shaved out a female sexual organ on the back of my head."

Many of the former patients are still haunted by their memories from these places, but some of them claim that the beyond than harsh treatment there did in fact help them return to a drug-free life.

Some of those interviewed in the article also claim that the authorities know about what goes on at these centres, but refuse to take action beyond occasionally inspecting them and handing out fines. Even when patients die, employees rarely face serious legal consequences. As a lawyer quoted in the article says, the centres usually manage to write lethal cases off as suicides or conflicts between the patients themselves or, sometimes, as a result of negligence by volunteers or outside parties. "I have never seen responsibility assigned to an employee of a motivational home."

Vladimir Mendelevich, the head of the medical psychology department at the Kazan State medical university, believes that the government, with its inadequate approach to addiction therapy, is, of course, "partially" to blame for the fact that these centres exist. As was described in a Guardian article from several months ago, Russia denies victims of addiction many forms of treatment available in other countries, particularly substitution therapy. The public in Russia often views those who suffer from addictions as criminals and not victims of a condition who need help. Although this is anecdotal, I have personally heard sufferers of addiction described as 'subhuman' and who therefore deserve whatever inhumane treatment they receive (indeed, such an opinion was voiced in several comments to the Meduza article above).

With all this stigma it is then no wonder that the rate of HIV infections in Russia has been rising.

Horrible, atrocious, and sad.


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